Thoughts on turning 40 3

So I turned 40 yesterday. All my jokes about taking a birthday raincheck for probably two years until I can actually do something celebratory aside, it’s a thing that happened. It’s been 40 years since 1980.

Yeah, I know. I think it’s bullshit, too. I’m still absolutely certain the 90s were only like ten years ago.

I can say that when I was 20, turning 40 seemed like a hazy, unimaginable temporal distance. 40 seemed old. And I remember when my dad turned 40 and we gave him a cane and a cake with black icing on it (which stained everyone’s mouths in a really, horrifying yet satisfying way) and black crepe paper. It did seem old. And distant. And unknowable.

I’ve learned after 40 years that old is a relative thing. When music that I, in all honestly, mostly hated in high school (sorry to all my peers, but I will never be over my loathing of either Nirvana or the Red Hot Chili Peppers) turns up on the oldies station, I turn into dust and blow away because it forces me to remember that we’re now further away from the 90s than I was from the 70s when I was hearing some of my dad’s favorite music on those stations. When Those Damn Kids on Twitter or TikTok (or alternatively, my nieces, who are both far too clever than they have any right to be) remind me that they never knew a world without the internet, or mention things from the 80s and 90s as vintage and retro, I feel old because I’m suddenly reminded I’m no longer the baby in the room. Even as a working adult, up until I was in my late twenties I was always the youngest person in my workplace. I was always younger than my doctors.

Well, not any more.

The perception of time is relative. The perception of how we change is also relative, because from the inside, most change is slow and incremental and it’s only when you look back in the aggregate that you can realize the 22 years since you officially became an adult have changed you, and distilled you, and taught you a lot of things, and slowly stripped away your fucks until you have so few left you jealously save them for the things that really, really, really matter.

I don’t feel old. I still feel like me. I feel like more me than I felt when I was 20 and had no fucking idea who me actually was. Aging is an excavation into yourself, a journey down into an unmapped cave system that doubles and triples back and has dead ends and wrong turns and every time you get to a new cave and try to encompass its breadth and depth and beauty–or ugliness–and incorporate it into your heart, you realize there’s still deeper to go. It’s a process of always becoming rather than simply being that I honestly hope never stops, so that even on the day I die (which will hopefully be many more decades in the future) I’m still looking into the crystallizations of my experience with all their layers and imperfections and thinking, Oh, that’s new.

Even when I was 20, I looked seriously askance at people who talked about high school as their glory days, like it couldn’t get any better. From another 20 years down the road, the only thing from those previous decades I could ask for is the skeletal system, with its joints still filled with their full complement of cartilege. My 20s weren’t bad–I had plenty of good times–and neither were my 30s. They were a mix of all things. But I would never ask to go back to the person I was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, because I’ve learned so much along the way about patience and beauty and determination and letting go. I’ve learned so much about where to have my emotional callousses and what pain is worth feeling because it’s part of being deeply connected to my own humanity and the lives of my fellow travelers on this world.

It feels a little strange to be writing something so… happy and heartfelt, I guess, when the world feels like an entire goddamn disaster. Maybe this all sounds too rosy; I don’t want to gloss over that there has been some truly awful, shitty stuff in the last couple of decades. Things that I would go back and change, if I could. Things I’m not proud of about the people I used to be, that I try to be honest and unflinching about when called upon, because that, too, is something to learn from. But as I’ve been thinking about all of this, it’s also undeniable that even when the external has been a struggle at times, internally I’m less of a goddamn mess than I’ve ever been.

And looking back at it, as scary and superstitious as it felt to be approaching 40–oh no, a round number we have arbitrarily decided is important because our culture works in base 10–I’m actually just grateful for everything I’ve learned and all the people I have loved. And if 40 years is what it took to get here, I can’t wait to see where I am and who I’ve become in 10, 20, 30, and if I’m lucky even 40 more.

This post actually started as a Twitter thread, and then I decided I had a lot more to say and think about, and even if not as many people will read it because it’s not as pithy, I’d rather it be mine. What I originally started with was trying to just sum up what I’ve learned over the last 20 years. Instead, that’s how I’m going to end this. We’ll see what I learn in the next 20.

  1. Always ask yourself what you’re actually trying to accomplish.
  2. Set achievable goals and focus your energy on things you can control.
  3. Gender is like Whose Line Is It Anyway? where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.
  4. Kind is better than nice–but always ask yourself who you’re being kind to.
  5. Setting boundaries and defending them is ultimately healthier for everyone.
  6. Listening is better than talking.
  7. No matter how frustrating it feels, incremental progress is still progress.
  8. Learning to take joy in the success of others is sometimes easier said than done, but it’s worth the practice.
  9. It’s okay to stop doing things that make you miserable; suffering is not actually noble.
  10. Don’t be a macho shithead.
  11. Change is constant and you have to learn the difference between what can be fought and what must be accepted and adapted to.
  12. Big problems require collective action.
  13. Always say “I love you.”

(PS: If you want to wish me a happy birthday, you can always buy one of my books or leave a review of them or give money to Stacey Abrams’s organization Fair Fight because I literally cannot think of a better present than a Senate where a majority doesn’t hate trans people.)

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on turning 40

  1. Reply Andrew Nov 14,2020 17:04

    Someday soon, you’ll be talking to someone who appears to be an adult – and then you find that he or she doesn’t recognize a reference you make to something that was huge in 1995 (say) – because they were a preschooler then. It’s a startling moment (he writes on the blog of someone who want born when Star Wars came out).

    Happy birthday and many happy returns.

  2. Reply Mary Ellen Neumann Nov 15,2020 12:31

    Happy Birthday Alex. There is no doubt about it that you are a great writer, either when journaling or writing one of your articles or books! I know after reading a chapter of one of your journal articles, shorts, or books, I just feel a complete understanding of where you are coming from on whatever the subject. You have a way with words that is unique to a great writer like all you write about is personal to you, like you have lived it, even if you are writing about your imagination. Someone who can sustain that type of writing will only have their audience grow as your admirers, both personal and literary, will overtime. Never stop doing that thing you love! Aunt M.E. and Uncle Charles

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